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Bike Profile - Posted 28th July 2010

Norvil Mk3 Commando 850
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We've had our Norton Commando rebuilt by Norvil. Frank tells the full story in the magazine but after a quick spin Rowena reveals just how well it goes, mister...

This bike is a mass of contradictions. Compared to a modern motorcycle it feels tiny. Bulging bodywork makes many current models, even twins and singles, absurdly broad in the beam, so the old fashioned Commando seems super svelte these days. It's about the size of a current 250. I've ridden bigger Superdreams. Yet this was once a superbike?

Put the 1975 Mark 3 Commando next to another Brit twin - say my Triumph T100C - and the Norton transforms into a proper, big bike. It's not particularly high but the saddle is quite wide, even in Roadster trim, and there a lot of metal lurking in that engine. You get the sensation of solidity and the impression of great big pistons thumping around, spinning up sizeable flywheels. Suddenly, it's a heavyweight bruiser.

L-o-n-g sidestand provides excellent value for money... Norvil Mk3 Commando 850

Then there's the performance. I used to sneer at the idea of an 850cc, aircooled, overhead valve twin being any sort of high speed superbike. 120mph: that's fast. 140mph: that's really fast. 108mph on a good day from a well run-in engine with a following wind… that's just not fast by any standard, not even in the 1970s.

But when you grab a hefty handful of throttle on this single-carb, softly tuned and recently rebuilt example, it absolutely leaps forwards. At 3000rpm in third gear something magnificent happens and the Commando cracks on with alacrity. Its ultimate top speed may not be all that impressive, but the manner in which it gets there is delightful. The growl 'n' howl from the free-breathing peashooter pipes enhances the experience, so somehow the Commando feels to be moving mighty fast when in reality we haven't passed 80mph.

There's 50ft/lb of torque on tap at 5000rpm which hurls you from zero to sixty in six seconds, made so very easy to achieve by the slick action of the throttle. Some bikes, their throttle cables and carb set-ups are so stiff that you have to wring every erg of energy out of the twistgrip, fighting the mechanism to release the engine's potential. On this one, you just give it a slight suggestion and - wayhey! - we're off and rumbling.

You could eat your dinner off that... Norvil Mk3 Commando 850 Engine

We had some doubts about getting our Commando properly rebuilt. We were concerned about being confronted with an inflexible, harsh, stiff 'new' machine which had lost all of its charm. Need not have worried. Somehow, Norvil Motorcycles rebuilt, replaced and revitalised all the important parts without destroying its essential character. Top marks, people. The rebuild service they offer is not cheap, but it is exceptional value. Expertise does not come cheap.

It was crucial that our Mk3 should start on the button. Pre-rebuild it would fire up on the electric hoof when warm but needed kicking up from cold. And when it had stood for a while I would need several attempts to get it going. Kick it over three times, go for coffee and a rest. Repeat for 24hrs. Then finally achieve ignition and go for ride. Not conducive to spontaneous motorcycling…

Then I lost a third of my body weight and now I really don't stand a chance of starting it on the kicker from cold. So the OE electric starter has gone in the bin and a replacement unit fitted, plus a Pazon electronic ignition and beefy battery. The resulting aural effects are startling: the starter spins at a ferocious rate and the motor burbles into life in seconds. I still don't quite believe it and am amazed every time it happens. Hopefully, I'll continue to be amazed.

This Commando has been in the family for yonks, so it's been fettled and modified and was far from standard even before this latest recreation. It used to be stopped by a monster huge single disc at the front end (I think it was a 14-inch superlight, drilled full-floating job), which frankly I didn't like much. It was too fierce, way too razor-edged for the soft old Bendy. No doubt it was perfect for proddie racing JPS Commandos which could actually be ripping around a racetrack at 120mph, but it was too powerful for our ratty old roadbike to be comfortable on slithery B-roads and byways.

There's another of these on the other side, and one at the back too... Norvil Mk3 Commando 850 Brakes

So I eyed the new set-up with some suspicion, too. The Bendy now sports a set of 12-inch floating discs which would be capable of controlling a bike of at least twice its weight. Weren't they going to be overkill for our 58 horsepower thumper, which weighs just 420lb? On my first outing I was extremely cautious when applying the brakes…

…and need not have worried in the slightest. Turns out that this double disc set-up is supremely sensitive and couldn't be more different to the earlier single disc. It's also radically different to early British and Japanese disc brakes, which tend to have a blunt, all-or-nothing action to them (and 1970s discs do the quick-fade thing, too, in the wet, and if used for long periods, and at any other inappropriate moment in my experience).

It's now really easy to feather the brake in tandem with a trailing throttle; the engine braking does the majority of the work and the discs chime in with a feel of comfortable, controllable security. The brakes felt powerful enough to let the Commando loose on the dual-carriageway and not worry about cars with ABS; they also felt sensitive enough for me to head home via unlisted lanes, the kind with grass growing down the middle, gravel on every corner and unexpected sheep.

She's keeping tight hold...
Commandos on Right Now......

The Commando is called a Bendy because they can be. After the wire-tight unapproachable steering of Norton's history, the Commando's softly-suspended sway came as something of a shock to trad Brit fans. In fact the rubber mounting Isolastic system was pretty sophisticated by the time the Commando reached its final incarnation as seen here (and Frank explains more about that in the August 2010 issue of the magazine).

However, the handling is still pretty strange if you've not encountered it before. The whole plot shudders and judders at low revs. The steering feels alarmingly floppy until we get out of first gear, not helped by the fact that Norvil took one look at our lovely big wide handlebars and binned them, fitting altogether smarter and shinier but (sob) slimmer items in their place. So now my hands feel like they're too close together and too far forward. By the first turning I was grumbling about the weight on my wrists. Hmph.

Are they monunted a little cock-eyed, or is it just me?... Norvil Mk3 Commando 850 Instruments

At 50mph, approaching a tight set of uphill twisty bends, I admit they were right. The new bars are perfect once we're on the move, flicking between the curves. The Commando reacts tightly to a nudge on each bar - it's one of those machines which you don't turn the front end, you push it away from you and the bike falls into the bend just perfect. It used to have a pair of 19-inch wheels which also went in the skip, but now has an 18-inch rear which can take current Avons rather than TT100s. Thankfully. Again, we were a little dubious about how the change of wheel size and tyre profile would affect the handling, but if anything they've made it easier to 'slouch steer' the Bendy. You just sag into the corner and let it lope round with the revs rising. Easy. Suddenly, I'm a hooligan again.

Even the gearbox can't dent my enthusiasm. We were warned that it might be stiff because the old four-speeder was totally shagged and all the innards needed replacement. It'll take a good couple of thousand miles for the new cogs to rub up against each other and make cosy, so I was ready for some clumsy clunks. The shift is on the modern side, but somehow it feels so much like an old Brit box that my befuddled brain initially tried to change up to second gear by shifting down with my left foot. And yes, the changes are slow and considered at the moment. And no, I can't get it into neutral at a standstill. But the clutch is fresh and light (especially by Commando standards, cos the diaphragm unit can bite your hand off if unwary) so it's not causing any great problems.

The gearbox is currently its weakest point. In almost every other respect the Commando is running as it always should have but never did. It's 30 years since the Bendy went out of production and those three decades of development have made it into an enticing proposition: a traditional British parallel twin which starts on the button, stops in good order and handles well enough to hold its own on any A-road.

As good as new?... Norvil Mk3 Commando 850

Back in the day, the Commando won MCN's Machine of the Year award five times. Previously, I'd always assumed that this was blatant bias in favour of the British machine on the part of the press - that it simply couldn't be that good compared to the four-cylinder motorcycles coming from Japan.

However, if you now offered me a CB750 in comparable condition to our Bendy I wouldn't consider a swap for more than a millisecond. A lifetime of motorcycling inclination and experience, overcome by middle age and the Norvil Mk3 Commando.

It'll be very interesting to see how it measures up to the new Norton Commando 961…


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